As visiting professor, Catterson teaches popular philosophy course in Chinese

Chinese university students were given a unique taste of Salve Regina over the summer when Dr. Troy Catterson translated one of his most popular philosophy courses – “Quest for the Good Life” – and taught it in Chinese during his six-week visit as a professor at prestigious Chang An University in the historic city of Xi’An.

The experience not only promoted a junction of Eastern and Western thinking, it is opening future opportunities for Salve professors to teach in English at universities throughout China, and is fostering more meaningful exchanges that will bring larger numbers of Chinese and American students together in the same classrooms – both at Salve and in China.

“What was interesting about it was there are a lot of Western concepts that we have thought about in a very precise way that are also thought about in a very precise – but completely different – way in Chinese philosophy,” Catterson said. “And it doesn’t quite translate over. The challenge was to bring it into Chinese terms.”

Catterson is well equipped to do just that. He learned Chinese at the Defense Language Institute while serving in the U.S. Army. Stationed in Hawaii, he was tasked to the National Security Agency. Later he served as a translator for visiting military dignitaries and became deeply involved in international relations, once translating for President Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher. He also worked with both the CIA and FBI, and at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, whose mission is to search for, recover and identify servicemen lost at war.

While in Hawaii, Catterson also met his wife, Chi-Hsuan, who was attending graduate school at the time and has since gone on to direct the University of North Georgia’s Chinese Language Flagship program. Together they immerse themselves in all things Chinese, purposefully steering away from most U.S. media and entertainment culture.

Catterson says his Army career, which included a tour in the first Gulf War as a member of the 25th Infantry Division “Tropic Lightning,” was incredibly valuable but also served the more utilitarian purpose of giving him the means to pursue his own “quest for the good life” as a teacher. He earned his B.A. in Chinese language and literature and philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, his M.A. in the relationship between science and religion at Boston University and his Ph.D. in philosophy at Boston University.

“[The Army] gave me a really global and interconnected view of the way in which cross-cultural communication has to take place,” Catterson said. “Thus, I’ve always been interested in inter-cultural philosophy – where different philosophical points meet each other and dialogue together – and I can give to my students a really global view, rather than simply a parochial or Western view.”

So, when facilitating his “Quest” course materials at Chang An University – exploring the roles of reason and faith through the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant and Mill – he faced the difficult challenge of explaining these notions in Chinese terms, as the Buddhist philosophy of karma doesn’t quite translate over to Aristotle’s four causes of being.

“Because I know Chinese philosophy, wherever there was a parallel I was able to bring that in and that would help the students understand a lot of the terms and a lot of the processes,” Catterson said. “We would have the opportunity to talk about many of the same problems that might be at a more advanced stage here while still at a budding stage there, or at a more advanced stage there than it is here.”

Hurdles like this that force adaptation of teaching approaches and methods are a constant in the profession no matter which hemisphere the classroom is located. In China, for instance, Catterson said communism, believe it or not, has fueled the country’s modernization and westernization in many ways. So now, many of the things that Western philosophy wrestles with and hit us here as being relevant also hit as relevant there, “because their society has become very capitalistic and consumer-driven, even though they would deny that.”

And in his 18 years of teaching, he’s noticed changes in American students as well. In many ways, he says, teaching philosophy has never been easier.

“When I first started teaching, every student was an absolutist,” Catterson said. “And you had to get them to question their assumptions, which was very difficult. Whereas now what’s happened – because of globalization, because of the Internet, because of the lack of cultural consensus in our country – is that students are growing up with this anomie, this real questioning of who am I and what’s my place in the world? And therefore, they’re a lot more open and thirsty for answers to these questions, but not in the old traditional ways because they’re questioning all the traditions. They want to know how to question in such a way that they can come up with answers.”

But there are big hurdles now too. “Students now are less well-read because we’re really living in a new oral culture and visual culture where everything is just fed to them,” Catterson said. “We’re in a less literate culture, which means I have to start at more basic levels of knowledge than I’ve ever had to before. They’re just as intelligent, it’s just the lack of background knowledge. The methods have to change. But that’s teaching in general. That makes it challenging but also rewarding.”

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